What Steve Jobs and Apple are and aren’t

This post describes my opinion on Steve Jobs’s legacy. I see myself between the camps of Apple haters and Apple fanboys. Apologies if my use of past and present in this post isn’t always correct – it is about the legacy (present) of someone who is not alive, any more (past).

“Let’s take him down a notch”

Der SPIEGEL had a few strange articles in reaction to Steve Jobs’s death. Their arguments have become remarkably wide-spread, mainly among the anti-Apple faction:
  • They posit that every Apple customer thinks Steve Jobs is god (or, at the very least, Jesus).
  • And then try very hard to show that he’s just human.
And guess what: it’s easy to prove! Two examples:
  1. Savior figure Steve Jobs – improving the world for few
    “Did the man really improve the world? Only for a small part of humanity in a very small part of the world.” How obvious. He worked in the tech industry (which he did influence greatly), so how was he supposed to cure cancer and do other really important things? I don’t mean that ironically, one is usually not saving the world when working in the tech industry.
  2. Who invented it? Not Steve
    lands the scoop that Jobs was not the driving force behind the Pixar movies. Which surprises exactly no one: Jobs had bought Pixar, but basically let Catmull et al. run the company. At Apple, he was meddlesome, at Pixar, he wasn’t.

My own point of view

I consider myself an Apple fan, but not blindly so – there are plenty of things I don’t like about the company. This is how I see Jobs’s and Apple’s legacy:

Would I have wanted to work with Steve Jobs? Certainly not. He could be very mean and unpredictable. Quoting a review [1] of the Jobs biography:

Ive [senior vice president of Industrial Design at Apple] in particular seems to grapple with Jobs’s personality, telling Isaacson “He’s a very, very sensitive guy. That’s one of the things that make his antisocial behavior, his rudeness, so unconscionable”

Is Apple a nice company? Certainly not. In most matters, they are as ruthless as most companies. But they are an interesting mixture of marketing, design and engineering, where Microsoft is too marketing-driven and Google is too engineering-driven (for my taste).

Was Steve Jobs a lone genius, exclusively responsible for Apple’s success? No! He always had a great team that worked for him. But he deserves credit for having a feeling for trends and for keeping things simple. Quote:

I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do. [via Businessweek]

Did Apple bring new ideas to the tech industry? Yes! For me, it is more about their philosophy than about their products:

  • Software: Stay in it for the long run, incrementally improve it. Contrast OS X which has been continuously evolved with Windows, where each version is like a completely new operating system (and I do like Windows 8!). The same holds for Apple’s and Microsoft’s mobile operating systems.
  • Hardware: Charge premium prices but, in return, give premium build quality and long-term support. When you sell a used Apple device, you still get a relatively high price. That fact offsets part of the higher initial price.
  • Hardware: Only offer a few, easily distinguishable models, keep their naming consistent over the years. Can you name all of HTC phone models? With Apple, it’s always just the iPhone.
  • Technology: Apple marketing (commercials, their website, etc.) highlights what you can do with their products, what they are good for (the most recent iPhone commercials are good examples). Most other tech companies highlight spec lists. Obviously, it helps you sell products if you play on people’s emotions, but there is also a pleasant pragmatism to Apple’s message: Technology has to be useful, otherwise there is no place for it. This pragmatism makes the emotional aspect more authentic.
  • Running a company: Quoting “How Apple works: Inside the world's biggest startup” by Adam Lashinsky for Fortune:
    "Every Monday we review the whole business," he [Jobs] said. "We look at every single product under development. I put out an agenda. Eighty percent is the same as it was the last week, and we just walk down it every single week. We don't have a lot of process at Apple, but that's one of the few things we do just to all stay on the same page." It's one thing when the leader describes the process. It's another thing altogether when the troops candidly parrot back the impact it has on them. "From a design perspective, having every junior-level designer getting direct executive-level feedback is killer," says Andrew Borovsky, a former Apple designer who now runs 80/20, a New York design shop. "On a regular basis you either get positive feedback or are told to stop doing stupid shit."
    Another quote:
    Simplicity also is key to Apple’s organizational structure. The org chart is deceptively straightforward, with none of the dotted-line or matrixed responsibilities popular elsewhere in the corporate world. There aren’t any committees at Apple, the concept of general management is frowned on, and only one person, the chief financial officer, has a “P&L,” or responsibility for costs and expenses that lead to profits or losses. It’s a radical example of Apple’s different course: Most companies view the P&L as the ultimate proof of a manager’s accountability; Apple turns that dictum on its head by labeling P&L a distraction only the finance chief needs to consider. The result is a command-and-control structure where ideas are shared at the top -- if not below. Jobs often contrasts Apple’s approach with its competitors’. Sony (SNE), he has said, had too many divisions to create the iPod. Apple instead has functions. “It’s not synergy that makes it work” is how one observer paraphrases Jobs’ explanation of Apple’s approach. “It’s that we’re a unified team.”
Conclusion. I will be the first to admit that neither Jobs nor Apple were/are perfect. But it is instructive to figure out what they did differently and what parts of their philosophy are worth copying.

Further reading

  1. Book review: ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson” by Laura June for This is my next... [great review!]
  2. How Apple works: Inside the world's biggest startup” by Adam Lashinsky for Fortune
  3. A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs” by Mona Simpson for the New York Times [provides counter-stories against the image of Steve Jobs as an all-out unpleasant human being – he really loved his sister, his wife, and his children]